LONDON – The ripples continue to spread out from the United Kingdom’s Brexit decision to leave the European Union — a decision not only applauded by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump but emulated by him with his claim to be following a path of “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit plus.”
So where is the next turning in the labyrinth? This writer cannot claim to be a full-blown Brexiteer, having voted in the recent referendum to “remain.” But I am what might be called a “Brexitician” — in that I have been closely involved for well over 50 years in all aspects of the European Community project since its inception, attended countless ministerial meetings, talked with some of the original founders, including Jean Monnet, and both written and read numerous books and pamphlets on every aspect of “The European project” and the U.K.’s relationship with it from the start.
Over the years I have watched it morph from a glorious postwar reconciliation plan in a war-torn continent into an over-centralized, over-intrusive political bloc, obsessed with integration — which frankly has no place in the age of digitalization and diversity — and in an age of reasserted local sovereignty and unifying national identity — of which Brexit is just one more part.
On the other hand I have seen some of the more vocal “leave” campaigners, true Brexiteers, march dangerously close to some quite sinister allies.
I refer to those sort of commentators who think it is clever to use phrases like “enemies of the people” to attack anyone who might be thought to stand in the way of the Brexit process and are too inexperienced, or empty-minded, to realize that this is the intolerant expression used by the Stalinists and the totalitarian regimes in the last century to denounce the judges and independent voices of dissent and freedom who dared challenge the “will of the people” or “the general will” — which any democrat knows can be dangerously volatile and malleable — and has to be filtered by parliamentary judgment.
Democrats need to stick with wise thinkers such as Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell and Isaiah Berlin, who all foresaw this kind of Rousseau-esque language as the path to the suppression of the individual citizen in the name of the masses. One wonders if in the offices of some U.K. newspapers they have ever read Rousseau or any of these other philosophers!
The failure of U.K. government ministers to speak out in ringing tones against this kind of language, whichever side they are on, has been widely condemned.
Of course, it may not in practice matter which way the judges finally go on the current question as to whether the Westminster Parliament does, or does not, have the right of approval before the government goes ahead with the divorce proceedings under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Either way one cannot keep Parliament out of this momentous exit process and it is plain foolish to try. Parliament would be most unwise to block the triggering of Article 50. The sensible course would be to provide Parliament with a really full and deep analysis of all the issues — to be examined and debated at great length before approval is given, legislative or otherwise, for the next move.
Such an analysis would instantly show that the polarized and binary argument so beloved of the media — and even some ministers and MPs — is completely unrealistic. For example, the so-called fundamental principle that one cannot be inside the EU single market, to any degree, without accepting absolute freedom of labor movement turns out to be not fundamental at all. Several EU member states are beginning quietly to modify it. The same goes for the “absolute” principle of freedom of services — which has never more than partially existed anyway — a not unimportant point since more than 80 percent of the U.K.’s gross domestic product comes from services.
The “remainers” were deeply unwise to duck these basic issues of EU reform, instead letting their cause collapse into a narrow British shopping list of demands, half of which were lost in the Brussels labyrinth. Regrettably, some of the current Brexit strategy team may be making the same inward-looking error and forgetting that the main and high aim must be to work with, rather than against, the rest of Europe in the common aim of building a union fit for the information revolution age and the entirely new world trading conditions that now confront every region.
Such a task involves neither a “hard” Brexit, nor a “soft” Brexit, but a set of practical arrangements between close neighbors to solve specific sectoral trade problems — for instance for banking, for insurance, for agriculture, for the automotive industry, for policing, for transport, for energy supplies, for environmental issues and so on. In some areas, transitional arrangements will obviously help. In others a sense of mutual advantage will quickly settle matters.
Robust defense cooperation on regional security is also high on this new European agenda, plus the clever weaving together of “soft power” initiatives to persuade, attract and influence where military deployments are ineffective.
For the U.K., the priority special relationship should now be not so much across the Atlantic with Trump’s America as with the new networks of trade and exchange that have emerged in the last 10 years to shape the globe, round the Indian and Pacific oceans where power now increasingly resides.
This shift and dispersal of world power is an unfolding process that has been going on for years and of which Brexit is only one chapter. It leads clean away from the protectionist bloc mentality of the old European political class, away from Atlantic-centered thinking and a U.S.-based international order, and away from the idea that any nation can act in isolation or with pretended complete control of its borders, laws or policies. Such comfort zone concepts cannot possibly work or exist in a hyper-connected and super-interdependent world.
Instead a new path opens out for both the U.K. and the rest of Europe. The peoples of Europe are clearly becoming aware of this path. The hope must be that the whole continent’s leaders as well have the wisdom to see it, understand it and follow it.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant.
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